Hack attack!

"Empowering the next generation of healthcare entrepreneurs" at MIT

For a healthcare industry living in mortal fear of data breaches and HIPAA violations, the word “hacker” would seem to be an anathema.

But the term means something different – and much more benign – at MIT, a campus whose renowned "hacker culture" has been fueled for decades by a spirit of creative cleverness and inquisitive adventure on the part of its tech-savvy students.

"Playfully doing something difficult, whether useful or not, that is hacking," is how computer programmer and free software guru (and MIT alum) Richard Stallman has defined it.

When it comes to improving healthcare, hacking could prove very useful indeed.

"To me, what hacking is all about is looking at a system, and looking at the rules by which that system is supposed to be governed, and then thinking creatively about how to make that system function differently, without necessarily changing the rules," says Eliott Cohen, an MBA candidate at MIT's Sloan School of Management and co-leader of the MIT "Hacking Medicine" initiative.

“Medicine is an industry known for its glacial pace of change and heavy bureaucracy,” says Hacking Medicine member Allen Cheng, who touts the group’s ability to develop “solutions to medical problems using newly available tools and following the rapid pace of innovation central to tech. We're not interested in squeezing an extra 1 percent out of the status quo. We want to change healthcare by leaps and bounds, with clever engineering and new solutions.”

The aim of the Hacking Medicine program, its leaders write, is to "create an ecosystem at MIT, hosting the Boston medical community and beyond to teach entrepreneurs and clinicians the skills necessary to launch disruptive healthcare businesses."

That might be a bit like the mantra of the Health Data Initiative, spearheaded by the Institute of Medicine and Department of Health and Human Services, under the urging of HHS' erstwhile CTO Todd Park, who's described it as unlocking health data to feed a "self-propelled, open ecosystem of innovation," catalyzing entrepreneurship by enabling "everyone who cares about healthcare able to scrub in" and try their hands at developing new solutions.

It's no accident. "I'm a massive Todd Park fan," says Cohen.

At any rate, it's hard to deny the effort's logic. By widening the playing field, and bringing in thinkers and engineers from outside medicine's traditional areas of expertise, innovation can be brought about more readily, the thinking goes – at a speed and scale at which it wouldn't otherwise.